Sunday, November 11, 2007

Smashing barriers - improving Union Council

The University of Manchester Student Union's Council is an interesting contraption; it's frequently criticised as being rather pointless. The obvious question is why is it pointless? I am going to attempt to answer that question, and propose some solutions. That question can be broken down.

Is Council pointless:
- because of its structure?
- because of its power/responsibilities?
- because it has few resources?
- because of its current members?

First of all, what is Council and why does it currently exist? The constitution defines Council as "sole representative of the student body of the University in all matters". It has control of the Union's property, and premises used by the Union, is responsible for the Union's management, can bring legal proceedings, it oversees societies, and can borrow money. It can pass motions which are binding on the Union. That is quite a broad remit.

So why, at our last Council meeting, were the two motions discussed, while important, rather lacking in ambition and scope? Why weren't any (if they were questions asked, they weren't particularly memorable) questions asked to the Executive? If students who are actually on Council and therefore are (presumably) interested in the way their Union runs aren't questioning their Executive, how can we expect "ordinary" students to take an interest?

Enough preamble! On with the problems.

Council's structure probably acts as a barrier to ordinary participation. It's on a Tuesday evening, when many societies hold their events, when many students do both academic and paid work, and some decent TV is on. Other than for society events, many students are unlikely to be around on campus. Would a Wednesday afternoon be a better time for Council members and students to attend?

It is only possible to submit written reports, and only executive members can do so (or do so). I believe having executive members giving a brief oral report summarising their written report would act as a way to facilitate more discussion and scrutiny.

In order for something to be discussed at Council, a motion must be proposed. There is no way to have a general discussion about an issue, or to have a non-adversarial debate. Not everything Council does has to be zero-sum.

Ordinary students aren't able to contribute motions. The only way for most students to directly have their say in how the Union operates is at a general meeting, and past experience of general meetings is that only controversial motions get enough people to discuss them, leaving the supporters of uncontroversial motions (like lobbying against cuts in IT services or for environmental issues) out in the cold, meaning it is only with the goodwill of the current Executive that what students want will be done. If ordinary students were able to attend Council and present motions, I imagine the Union would have a lot more policy, and would be far more inclusive.

Is the way Council is formed appropriate? We have four tiers of membership, the Executive, "secretaries" for various positions (including Societies, LGBT, and Education), school representatives, and general members. Is this a good way? Is it fair? Perhaps having titles means that council members feel they can't bring motions in another member's "field".

It might be better to abolish general members and secretaries, and have a proportional number of reps for each faculty or school. While positions like the disabilities or EM secretaries would be lost, they would be replaced with non-sabbatical executive officers for each liberation campaign (who would have responsibilities and a budget). Committees would still exist, just any title-specific role would be replaced by an election to those positions amongst all Council members.

Moving on, I can't see how Council's power or responsibilities limit Council. Council can basically do whatever it likes. But, do Council members know this, and if they do, do they know how to take advantage of it? If the Union had the money, Council could have ordered the purchase of Melbourne University Private (which I think would have been ironic). Is Council's ignorance about what it can do holding it back? Perhaps it is because what Council members aren't formally required to do anything other than attend meetings. I would recommend having formal descriptions of responsibilities for all positions, and making sure Council members can be individually held to account for failing to fulfill responsibilities.

Semi-related, Council would also seem to have all the resources it would need. So why do Council members pick up their agenda just before the meeting? Do people feel that the Union supports them in what they are trying to do? Perhaps the Union should provide more resources to enable Council members to research issues and present them before Council (photocopying, etc.).

Finally, is Council restricted because of its current members? I would say partly - Council meetings are hardly filled with passionate argument and are by no means setting the agenda for students in Manchester or nationally. But I believe that Council members this year would like to do so, but don't feel able to, either because the barriers are due to uncertainty or because of barriers the Union has placed.

We can smash these barriers, but we require a change in both culture and structure.

I would be interested in proposing motions to Council (and constitutional amendments where appropriate) in order to make these changes. Thoughts welcomed.

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